New metaphor – corrupt Church leaders

celebrity worshipThose readers who have been following this blog for a long time, will know that there is one particular word which I come back to over and over again. The word, a somewhat technical one, sums up for me much of the issue about bad religious leadership. The word is narcissism and its adjective narcissistic. It is possible to become very technical in describing exactly what the word means within the psychoanalytical literature. Freud use the word but others have refined its use in a somewhat different direction. For the sake of this post I will define narcissism as the self inflation that an individual obtains by being at the centre of adoration and admiration. It is a word associated with show business and anybody who takes centre stage within an organisation, including the church. One particular author in Australia, Len Oakes, wrote a fascinating thesis on the way that charismatic leadership in the church and narcissism have a great deal in common. He was able to identify narcissistic behaviour in the leadership of some charismatic churches in his own country.

The other day I came across a Twitter statement on the topic of narcissism. The writer, one Boz Tchividjian, shared this thought. ‘Narcissistic leaders feed off those who crave their attention and affirmation only to spit them out when the feasting is finished.’ I thought that this use of a feeding metaphor was very powerful. Like many metaphors it draws on an experience common to all. In this particular case it is a metaphor which transcends all cultures. Boz has also captured the way that the narcissistic relationship works in two directions. In return for the satiation of his appetite for being placed at the centre of people’s adoration, the leader is offering to his followers attention and affirmation. It is a relationship that is for a time mutually affirming. We have all seen this dynamic at work, particularly in the world of many Christian charismatic superstars who preach to vast audiences. The famous preacher is one who like celebrities in other cultures has a kind of magic which the followers believe will somehow rub off onto them when they get close to the object of their adoration. People behave like this around royalty, rock stars and other kinds of celebrity. The smallest act of attention by the leader or adored person is treasured and remembered for ever. We can try to convince ourselves that the idol or revered leader who may look in our direction has been concerned about us personally, even if only for a fraction of a second. What we fail to realise is that it is the combined adoration by hundreds or even thousands of fans that gives to the superstar his narcissistic gratification. The contribution of any particular individual in this process is of little or no importance. It is the crowd as a whole which gives him what he wants.

Narcissistic behaviour on the part of popstars, certain church leaders or other celebrities, has also a still darker side. In recent years we have become familiar with the phenomenon of groupie sex between impressionable women and their adored stars. The dynamic of this kind of exploitative relationship is not hard to understand. The magic of being in the presence of the one who has been adored from a distance allows the young impressionable woman to surrender to anything that is suggested by the adored quasi-divine celebrity. Such relationships are a clear example of a gross imbalance of power and by definition they are abusive and exploitative. The celebrity may feel that he has an entitlement to such ‘perks’, but this is part of the narcissistic trait which has begun to become ingrained because of this constant exposure to fame and adulation. What I want is what I get. The popstar, the celebrity or the charismatic leader is well on the way to becoming like a pampered child who cannot deal with anybody opposing his wishes. Such behaviour can also be the prelude to various forms of addiction, drugs and alcohol or pornography. Instant relationships which focus on sexual gratification and which bypass the need for courtesy, consideration and respect, may provide something in the short term. In the long term the narcissistic exploitative individual has become a victim of his own addictions and life will probably end up full of tragedy and despair.

Narcissistic behaviour in the church will not usually have the more spectacular examples of the extremes that we sometimes see in pop culture. Nevertheless, to return to our metaphor, some church leaders are guilty of feeding off their parishioners in a variety of similar ways to that of celebrities. A need to be at the centre of attention is not by itself immoral but it will be bad for both the leader and the led if a narcissistic culture exists within a particular congregation. To put it simply and bluntly it is bad for a church leader to exploit his flock by using them as cheer leaders and ‘worshippers’, just as it is bad for members of the congregation to hold up their leader in an exaggerated form of veneration. The purpose of belonging to a church, the worship of God and discovering his will for your life, is hardly going to be enhanced by this kind of dynamic.

What is the solution to this kind of unhealthy dynamic when it occurs in the church? The first thing is for us to be aware when it is happening. At present the kind of energy exercised by a charismatic leader is applauded and regarded as being an example of church life and growth. Nobody wants to challenge ‘success’ when there are signs of vigorous activity in the church. Full churches and the presence of young people are held to be signs of life blessing on a ministry. The suggestion, as we make on this blog, that all may not be well in this kind of culture is never going to be a popular one. The church sees these ministries as attracting both young people and copious amounts of money. Both of these are in short supply in many parts of the church. At present there is no solution to the problems of narcissistic behaviour in the church, simply because only a very few people have woken up to its existence and its potential to cause havoc in the lives of individuals. Has anyone else observed the dynamic of ‘feeding’ on the part of leaders and subsequent ‘spitting out? I certainly have and this metaphor brings fully alive a real problem in our churches which we need to address and talk about.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

5 thoughts on “New metaphor – corrupt Church leaders

  1. One ordained couple I had dealings with were what I called “users”. I meant, they used people, but it struck me then, and even more forcefully now, that they were getting a fix to some extent. She told me once that when they went to a new church, they identified the movers and shakers, and concentrated on them. I can tell you that when they moved on, he got itchy feet after four years, every time, they walked away and forgot the people they had used. I was lucky. I was so fed up of them by then, I was glad to see the back of them, but at least two couples were very hurt. And a third was “kept on” for a while, because she wanted a place to stay when she visited. But once that was all done, they were dropped, too. The day before they left, they had dinner at my house, and I never even got a Christmas card!
    Don’t you think, Stephen, that anyone kind of gets used to being looked up to? I grumbled at a table full of clergy that they shouldn’t really make pronouncements on a subject about which they knew nothing. One of them pointed out, mildly enough, that most clergy are accustomed to people asking them all kinds of things to which they are supposed to know the answer! And royalty gets used to excessive deference which most of us would find a bit repellent. It just sort of fades into the wallpaper. So I think there’s probably an element of getting used to being worshipped in most clergy, simply by virtue of their position. Not sure how you deal with it. Better supervision? If the Archdeacon actually has time, he might be able to spot those who are becoming pompous prats and do something about it.
    Just incidentally, how is it that retired clergy overwhelmingly “get” this, and the bullying, and working clergy rarely do? I’m afraid I’ve come to the conclusion that the working ones get it, too, but don’t say so.

  2. Thanks E/A

    There is a deep fault line here that at its simplest can be seen as environmental conditioning, and at its worse the art of believing a lie.

    It is a sad fact that we have in positions of leadership some of the most inadequate, ill-equipped, and often just plain nasty people.

    I’m sorry if I give people hernia of the ear over this but, until living with the underclass (For at least two years) becomes part of a priests or leaders training, I see no hope. However, there are some who are so bent out of shape, (As we have seen in recent scandals) that will always fall through the net, if indeed there is a net?
    This is stomach-churning stuff; I need a bowl to be sick in.

  3. Yes, English Athena, and “users” come in many shapes and forms. The fix can be as you described but it may be purpose-made to ‘fit’ their particular psychological profile. Where the vicar has a particular unregenerate area they may target part of the congregation upon which to bestow their ‘goodness’; another part of the congregation get the ‘bad’ stuff deposited on them. Thus the unregenerate priest finds ‘health’ by ‘splitting’ – a recognised psychological term for the dynamic just described. The split off bad bits become the ‘faults’ seen in others. So if the priest has ‘scary’ elements hidden in their subconscious, then what will be ‘seen out there’ in particular individuals is scariness. So x gets the reputation for being scary, not the priest.

    Pass the sick bowl.

    1. Well, I have been accused of being aggressive, by a cleric who was stabbing the air at the time! Is that the phenomenon you describe?

      1. Yes, “The split off bad bits become the ‘faults’ seen in others. So if the priest has ‘scary’ elements hidden in their subconscious, then what will be ‘seen out there’ in particular individuals is scariness” so motes and planks in eyes come to mind! There is a defence mechanism whereby we deny a fault in ourselves – it is out of our consciousness – but then that fault appears to us in others.

        Are you aggressive? Given the name of this blog I wouldn’t be surprised! It might be expected if you have been put upon. In which case anger might be the appropriate response within the scriptural guidelines of “Be angry, yet sin not.” Quite a difficult balance at times! I am praying for you on that one.

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